Do police need grenade launchers, other military weapons? Officers say yes
By Christina Hall | Detroit Free Press | Published: August 17, 2014
Michigan police departments have armed themselves with grenade launchers, armored vehicles, automatic rifles and other equipment — 128,000 items in all, worth an estimated $43 million — under a federal program that allows police to obtain surplus gear free from the U.S. military.
A Free Press review of items transferred from the military since 2006 shows Michigan law enforcement agencies have received 17 Mine Resistant Ambush Protected Vehicles or MRAPs, built to counter roadside bombs; 1,795 M16 rifles, the U.S. military’s combat weapon of choice; 696 M14 rifles; 530 bayonet and scabbards; 165 utility trucks; 32 12-gauge, riot-type shotguns; nine grenade launchers; and three observation helicopters.
Federal officials won’t say which agencies got equipment, but the Free Press inquiry shows it went not just to large counties with high crime, but some of the state’s smallest counties and towns.
For instance, Dundee police, who patrol a village of about 4,000 residents, got a mine-resistant ambush vehicle. Barry County in rural western Michigan, with just under 60,000 residents, got five grenade launchers.
Police say they need military-grade weapons to counter heavily armed drug dealers, mass shooters and terrorists. Armored vehicles can be used against barricaded gunmen, to evacuate citizens in emergencies or to quell riots, while high-powered, automatic rifles keep police from being outgunned by bad guys.
But the growing militarization of local police is raising alarms across the country. Civil rights advocates, law enforcement experts and politicians from both parties are questioning the proliferation of “warrior cops” — local police arrayed in SWAT team gear and camouflage, using equipment once seen only in combat to patrol the streets of America’s cities, suburbs and small towns.
In last week’s Time magazine, U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, a Republican from Kentucky and likely GOP presidential candidate in 2016, decried the Aug. 9 police killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., which touched off looting and violence there that was met by a show of military force by police.
“The images and scenes we continue to see in Ferguson resemble war more than traditional police action,” Rand wrote.
A report released this summer by the American Civil Liberties Union found that police departments nationwide are increasingly using military tactics and weapons for such routine matters as serving search warrants, sometimes with deadly and tragic results. Among incidents cited in the report:
- A 19-month-old Wisconsin boy critically wounded in the face and chest in May when a flash-bang grenade, long ago adopted from the military by SWAT teams, landed in his crib at a relative’s home in Georgia. Police were executing a no-knock warrant to search for a relative over a $50 drug sale.
- The 2010 death of Aiyana Stanley-Jones, 7, of Detroit, who was struck by a bullet from an officer’s gun as she slept on a couch during a Detroit police raid. Police in SWAT gear used a flash-bang grenade in that raid, too. They were looking for a murder suspect, who was found in the upper level of the duplex and surrendered without incident.
- A pregnant mother, 26, shot with her 14-month-old son in her arms in 2008 when a SWAT team broke down the front door of her rented home in Lima, Ohio, and opened fire. They were looking for her boyfriend on suspicion of drug dealing.
“We found through our investigation the use of paramilitary weapons and tactics causes serious problems for undermining public confidence,” said Kara Dansky, senior counsel for the ACLU and the author of the report, which looked at 800 SWAT raids by law enforcement in 20 states and the agencies’ acquisition of military equipment.
“Overly militarized police view people in the community as the enemy,” Dansky said.
For police, however, it’s an issue of life or death. “If you have to defend yourself in situations, you have to be suited to handle the situations,” said Macomb County Sheriff Anthony Wickersham. “The bad guys have high-capacity rounds. In today’s world, you just never know what you’re gonna be confronted with.”
Outgunned by 2 robbers
More than 8,000 agencies participate nationwide in the federal surplus program, according to the Defense Logistics Agency, which oversees the Law Enforcement Support Office (or 1033) program out of its office in Battle Creek. The equipment flowing to Michigan is part of more than $4.3 billion worth of gear that has been transferred to law enforcement agencies nationwide since the program’s inception in 1997.
That same year, law enforcement officials say, there was a change in philosophy and arsenals after a bank robbery shootout in North Hollywood, Calif. Two men with body armor and semiautomatic and fully automatic rifles and handguns engaged in a 44-minute firefight with Los Angeles police, who were outgunned and had to borrow semiautomatic rifles and shotguns from a gun store to battle the robbers.
Law enforcement agencies started adding high-powered rifles to their arsenals. Macomb County Sheriff’s Sgt. Phil Abdoo said such rifles are “pretty much a standard issue for police officers now.”
Peter Kraska, professor and chairman of the School of Justice Studies at Eastern Kentucky University, has studied the militarization of police since 1988 and says the police community is divided in the debate.
He said the number of SWAT teams nationwide has dramatically increased since the war on drugs hysteria in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Police have been on an “incremental march” in this direction for years, he said, with an acceleration after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
The 1033 program is just one avenue for agencies to obtain military gear. Others are Homeland Security and Justice Assistance Grants, which have provided billions of dollars for weapons purchases over the last decade.
Homeland Security money bought a new $600,000 armored tank on wheels that Warren police used Monday to rescue people trapped by floodwaters near a Lowe’s on Van Dyke near 13 Mile, Deputy Police Commissioner Louis Galasso said. He said the tank, housed in Warren, is shared by other communities and is used for SWAT deployments, barricaded gunmen and active shooter situations.
The 1033 program items range from military vehicles, weapons and night-vision goggles to everyday supplies such as blankets, boots, defibrillators and computers. Agencies acquire the items after an approval process but pay for shipping and maintenance costs, which can be expensive.
State coordinators are expected to maintain property accountability records to include photos of aircraft, watercraft, weapons and tactical vehicles, said Mimi Schirmacher, a spokeswoman for the Defense Logistics Agency. Local agencies must return items they don’t use.
While the buildup in police weaponry started well before the weapon transfer programs, Kraska said the recent escalation is pulling departments further away from community policing, and “that can change the ethos of the department, the culture of the department.”
“Every ‘what if’ scenario that our fearful minds can imagine doesn’t necessarily result in good public policy,” Kraska said.
Many local law enforcement officials say they have to be prepared for every scenario because no call is routine anymore.
“We think this misnomer — ‘we’re being too military’ — is false, given the threats ever present in today’s society,” said Oakland County Sheriff Michael Bouchard. “These pieces of equipment are something we hope we never have to use … but hope is not a strategy in our world. Sometimes, I think, people don’t understand the reality of today’s world.”
Two years ago, his office used armored vehicles to evacuate residents from a West Bloomfield neighborhood where Officer Patrick O’Rourke was killed during a 20-hour standoff with a barricaded man. The Macomb County Sheriff’s Office sent its armored personnel carrier because it was retrofitted with a battering ram and lift to reach a second story.
Robert Stevenson, executive director of the Michigan Association of Chiefs of Police and a former Livonia police chief, said many agencies have turned to these federal surplus programs because of the downturn in the economy and cuts in revenue-sharing.
“Police have been forced to put all of their revenue toward personnel and it’s almost eliminated capital outlay,” he said, adding that the inexpensive or free federal programs sometimes are the “only option” for police to obtain even basic items.
“You need that equipment ready and hope that you never use it. The fact that you never use it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have it,” Stevenson said. “Your police department needs to be as well armed as the people they encounter.”
Stevenson said, however, he would not advocate departments obtaining items they don’t need, such as a bazooka.
Since the nation’s first recorded police death in 1791, there have been more than 20,000 law enforcement officers killed in the line of duty in the U.S. There were 100 killed last year and 72 so far this year, including one in Michigan, according to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund website.
On average, over the last decade, there have been 58,261 assaults against law enforcement each year, resulting in 15,658 injuries, according to the website.
The Livingston County Sheriff’s Office has a mine-resistant assault vehicle for use in evacuations or in barricaded gunman or active shooter situations. Its main use is “mobile ballistic shield. It has no offensive capability. No weapons, machine guns or laser cannons,” tactical team Lt. Scott Domine said. It has been used for training, in parades and at community events.
The Macomb County Sheriff’s Office has acquired 79 M16 rifles, used by military around the world, and about 14 M14 semiautomatic rifles, through the 1033 program, Abdoo said. He serves as the office’s range master, as well as the use-of-force trainer, firearms instructor, crisis negotiator and grenadier.
Abdoo said the M16s, some pre-1972 vintage, came fully automatic from the military but were converted to semiautomatic weapons under a sheriff’s office policy. He said trained road patrol officers and other first responders have the M16s, which are more accurate and can shoot farther than the shotguns they also carry.
The more specialized M14s are used by the SWAT team and the honor guard. About half of the M14s, with polished wooden handles and no ammunition, are stored at the sheriff’s office and used only by the honor guard for ceremonies and funerals.
Macomb’s Wickersham said obtaining the M16s from military surplus can save $800 or $900 over the $1,000 price tag each weapon would cost if the office purchased them.
In the sheriff’s office armory sits several confiscated weapons from handguns to an AK47 and a machine gun, which Abdoo said were taken from drug dealers.
Earlier this year, Westland police received a 1991 High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle, commonly known as a Humvee, through the surplus program. It has been used a handful of times by SWAT and the narcotics team for raids and can be used for rescues, especially in wooded areas in parks or during inclement weather, Chief Jeff Jedrusik said. He said law enforcement personnel are “facing some of the most dangerous situations anyone will face in their lives. We have to prepare and train for things.”
The Wayne County Sheriff’s Office obtained two armored personnel carriers and some patrol rifles through the program. The carriers are no longer used because the special response team has another vehicle, spokesman Dennis Niemiec said. He said the office hopes to find another agency that can use the APCs.
Wayne County, with almost 1.8 million people, also got an observation helicopter. So did Monroe County, home to only 152,000 or so residents.
The Detroit Police Department hasn’t used the federal surplus program because it has purchased many of the items that other agencies have obtained for free, such as a helicopter, armored personnel carriers and weapons, Sgt. Michael Woody said. For security reasons, he declined to say how many items the department has. He said other agencies “most likely are taking stock (in items) they’ve never had before.”
Abdoo said an item, such as a grenade launcher, might raise eyebrows, but it has a specific purpose — shooting smoke, tear gas and nonlethal munitions for crowd control.
New limits proposed
The images this past week coming out of Ferguson, Mo., where residents were met by a police force that looked more like an occupying army — dressed in full combat gear, riding in armored vehicles, firing tear gas and shooting rubber bullets — have ramped up the call nationwide to end the militarization of police and all or part of the 1033 program.
By Friday afternoon, nearly 22,000 people had signed an online petition at www.care2.com calling for the end of the program.
U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Georgia, said he plans to introduce legislation to put limitations on the transfer of certain kinds of military equipment to state and local law enforcement agencies, including tactical vehicles, armored vehicles and MRAPs.
The legislation also would include assault weapons and aircraft and would require the Department of Defense to account for all the military-grade equipment that has been transferred in an annual report to Congress to help track any weapons that are lost, stolen or sold, according to Johnson’s office.
“I plan to introduce legislation to do something before America’s main streets militarize further. We not only lack serious oversight and accountability, but we need some parameters put in place for what is appropriate.
“Before another small town’s police force gets a $700,000 gift from the Defense Department that it can’t maintain or manage, we need to press pause and revisit the merits of a militarized America,” Johnson said in a statement to the Free Press.
U.S. Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in a statement Friday that Congress established the military surplus program “out of real concern that local law enforcement agencies were literally outgunned by drug criminals.
“We intended this equipment to keep police officers and their communities safe from heavily armed drug gangs and terrorist incidents. Before the defense authorization bill comes to the Senate floor, we will review this program to determine if equipment provided by the Defense Department is being used as intended,” Levin said.
In its report, the ACLU urged the federal government to rein in incentives for police to militarize. It also wants government to track the use of military equipment in police hands and is recommending that state legislatures and municipalities develop criteria for SWAT raids that limit their deployment to the emergencies for which they were intended, such as an active shooter situation.
Sofia Rahman, a legal fellow with ACLU of Michigan, said the post-9/11 national security state has allowed law enforcement to engage in security measures that are more harmful to the public, such as surveillance devices that gather data from cell phones.
With officers wearing “outfits worn overseas or in combat operations to carry out ordinary law enforcement activities, it’s a blurring of the line of what they’re allowed to do under the Fourth Amendment.”
Macomb’s Abdoo said he understands the concerns. But he said a lack of leadership — not military equipment — is what allows a department to run of out control.
The ACLU’s Dansky said leadership is part of the problem and can be part of the solution. Training also plays a role as some police engaging in tactical work are trained to think of themselves as soldiers.
“There’s a reason to have separation between military and our policing,” Dansky said. “Equipping and behaving like an occupying military force, there are serious implications. At the end of the day, these are cops, not soldiers.”